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Contents

Borderless, July 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Whispers of Stones… Click here to read.

Translations

Tagore’s Mono Mor Megher Shongi (‘The Clouds, My Friends‘)has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Welcome, a skit by Tagore, has been translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

The Bus Conductor, a short story by Dalip Kaur Tiwana has been translated from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair. Click here to read.

Hasan Sol: A Balochi Folktale from Geedi Kessah-4(Folktales Vol: 4) compiled and retold by Gulzar Khan Mari, has been translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi. Click here to read.

Cry of the Sunflower written in Korean and translated to English by Ihlwha Choi, a poem for Ukraine. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Nobobarsha (or ‘New Rains’) has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

This narrative is written by a youngster from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. Lockdown had been written in Hindustani by Jishan and translated to English by Grace M Sukanya. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Supatra Sen, Jenny Middleton, Pramod Rastogi, Ron Pickett, George Freek, Devangshu Dutta, Candice Louisa Daquin, David Francis, Raja Chakraborty, Michael Lee Johnson, Ashok Suri, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Sutputra Radheye, Maid Corbic, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In The Anthology in my Mind, Rhys Hughes talks of a make believe anthology. Click here to read and find out what he imagines.

Conversations

Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, converses with legendary actress, Deepti Naval, on her literary aspirations at the Simla Literary festival, Unmesh, in June 2022. Click here to read.

Keith Lyons interviews Steve Carr, a writer who has written 500 short stories and has founded the Sweetycat Press. Click here to read.

Stories

A Cat Story

Sohana Manzoor leaves one wondering if the story is about felines or… Click here to read.

My Christmas Eve “Alone”

Erwin Coomb has a strange encounter at night. Is it real? Click here to read.

Bus Stop

The story by Rinu Antony focusses on chance encounter at a bus stop. Click here to read.

Murder at the ‘Pozzo di San Patriza’

Paul Mirabile travels to 1970s Italy to experience a crime inside a sixteenth century well. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Grune Point and an Inkling of Eternity

A poetic account by Mike Smith as he explores the area that hovers between England and Scotland. Click here to read.

Olympic Game Farm: Meeting and Greeting Animals from Disney Movies

Hema Ravi visits a farm that houses animals that had a past in Disney. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In A Visit to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Suzanne Kamata visits a Museum dedicated to an American Japanese artist. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Shopping for my Funeral, Devraj Singh Kalsi goes on a bizarre spree. Click here to read.

Mission Earth

In On a Bamboo Bicycle from Thailand to Indonesia, Kenny Peavy revisits his trip across Asia exploring the biodiversity and conservation efforts. Click here to read.

Essays

Discovering Books and Places: The Voyage from Eden

Meredith Stephens sails the Australian coastline, recording her experiences with words and her camera. Click here to read.

Trekking to Tilicho Lake

Ravi Shankar treks up to Tilicho Tal at 4940 m. Click here to read his trekking adventures.

A Modern-day Animal Fable with Twists

Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

Is it okay to be ordinary? by Candice Louisa Daquin explores the responses of people to being accepted as ordinary. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from The Mendicant Prince (based on the Bhawal sannyasi case) by Aruna Chakravarty. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar. Click here to read.

Indrashish Banerjee reviews Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution. Click here to read.

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Editorial

Whispers of Stones

When the mountains and grass
had life, stones whispered
how the world came to be…

'Stonehenge', Daily Star

And as the world came to be, there was war — war that seems to rage in some part of the world or other. The British Museum has an exhibit which states the first battle was staged 13,000 years ago… in what is now Sudan, long before the advent of written history. This was even before the advent of people who built the ancient Stonehenge which was constructed around 3000-2000 BCE. And battles still continue to rage. The Jebel Sahaba casualties in Sudan 13000 years ago were less than 100. But the current conflicts claim in terms of tens of thousands which prolonged could stretch to millions. The last world war (1939-1945) which lasted for six years had a total of  75-80 million persons who perished. Ukraine-Russia conflict has within five months had a casualty count of more than 14000. And yet weapons and nuclear arms continue to proliferate decimating humanity, nature and towns, destroying homes, erasing ruthlessly and creating more refugees. The only need for such battles seem to be to satiate the hunger of the warlords secure in their impenetrable fortresses while tens of thousands are annihilated and natural or nurtured landscapes lie emaciated, mutilated and polluted.

What would be a good way of ending such wars?

Tagore sought the development of better instincts in humankind as an antidote. He wrote in the last century: “Any teaching concerning man must have human nature for its chief element. How far it will harmonise with human nature is a matter of time.”

With wars getting deadlier and more horrific, we can only try to awaken, as Tagore suggests, the better nature in man to move towards a peaceful world. What would be a more effective way of doing it than writing with the hope of a kinder and accepting future?

For that let us start with translations of the maestro Tagore himself. We have a song about the season — monsoon, ‘Monomor Megher Songi (My Friends, the Clouds)’, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam, a painting by Sohana Manzoor interpreting the lyrics and a transcreation of Nababarsha or New Rains’ was shrunken into a popular Rabindra Sangeet and reduced to twenty lines in English by Tagore himself. The connect with nature is an important aspect that enables humans to transcend petty concerns leading to dissensions of different kinds as evidenced in the maestro’s humorous feline skit, translated by Somdatta Mandal. A translation of Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s ‘The Bus Conductor’ from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair adds zest to this section. Fazal Baloch has translated a folktale from Balochistan involving the supernatural and Ihlwha Choi has taken on the cry for peace on behalf of Ukraine while translating his own poem in Korean. The Nithari column has a story by Jishan in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya, showcasing the struggle of a youngster during the pandemic – rather a sad narrative, which though fictitious has its roots in reality. 

Our poetry section touches upon the timelessness of dissensions and darkness with Michael R Burch’s poem on Stonehenge and Supatra Sen’s poem on Ukraine. This has been allayed by love poetry by Maid Corbic from Bosnia. George Freek’s poem ruffles with its reflective lines. And in the midst of it all, is poetry by Ryan Quinn Flanagan reflecting on the seven stages of man. Will the process of aging or human nature ever change? I wonder if Rhys Hughes can find an answer for that in humorous verses as he has shared in this issue. In his column, Hughes has written about an imagined anthology of short stories.

Our short story section has echoes of humour around felines by Manzoor, somewhat in tune with the mind frame seen in Tagore’s skit on this issue. Humour rings tinged with an apparition in Erwin Coombs’s narrative – should one call it dark humour or is it just his style? Paul Mirabile goes for gothic darkness in his meanderings around Italy.

Strangely, we seem to have a focus on short stories this time. Keith Lyons has interviewed Steve Carr, a journalist, a publisher and writer of 500 short stories who is questing to create a ‘perfect short story’. Reading out excerpts from her short story at a literary festival in Simla, Bollywood celebrity, Deepti Naval, was in conversation with eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. She spoke of her literary aspirations while unveiling her autobiography in verse, A Country Called Childhood. This conversation has been shared by Sengupta with Borderless. It is interesting to see how Naval’s reactions to social malaise contrasts with that of the film director, cinematographer and actor, Goutam Ghose, who was present during the unveiling of her book. He had responded to communal violence by making a film on Lalan Fakir extolling virtues of love and kindness, called Moner Manush (2010) and then made a book on the film called, The Quest (2013) which has beautiful translations of Lalan Fakir’s lyrics by Sankar Sen.  

Our non-fiction sections seem to be hosting multiple travel stories across UK by Mike Smith, along the Australian coastline by Meredith Stephens, on the Himalayas with Ravi Shankar and an unusual visit by Hema Ravi to a farm in US where animals that had been used in Disney films in the past are homed. Our environmental columnist, Kenny Peavy, actually wrote about his cycling trip from Thailand to Indonesia on a bamboo cycle made by a Singaporean! And from Japan, Suzanne Kamata explored a museum in the neighbouring town of Mure. The museum on a hill hosts the art of American Japanese Artists, Isamu Noguchi.

We do have non-fiction that moves away from travel: noir humour by Devraj Singh Kalsi and an essay by Candice Louisa Daquin on a very interesting subject – ‘Is it Okay to be Ordinary?’ Is it?  Dan Meloche has written a literary essay on Canadian novelist Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015). While Meloche spoke of how the novel departed from Orwell’s Animal Farm, his narrative brought to my mind a novel closer to our times set in England by Jasper Fforde called Constant Rabbit (2020) – this a science fiction while Alexis’s was an apologue or an animal fable. Fforde did use the rabbits rather well to highlight the current times.

We have book excerpts of two recent books that I would call really outstanding. One of them is Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, which is being released this week, and is based on the evergreen contentious case of the prince of Bhawal that has even been explored even in cinema. The other, Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh, has been published posthumously and is not a translation from Bengali but written in English originally by this trilingual writer.  

Called ‘Dadamoni’ affectionately, iconic actor Ashok Kumar is regarded as “the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood”.  This book has been reviewed by Indrashish Banerjee, who calls it ‘a reflection on the Hindi film industry’ as well as a biography. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Booker winner Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of her Hindi novel by Nita Kumar, reiterating the dialogue that had been kindled on motherhood last month by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story (2022). Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution plotting how life evolved on earth. Parichha tells us: “Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.” Another book that sounds like a must-read has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Mandal. She tells us: “ ‘Gleanings’ represents the quintessential Tagore…Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.”

There is more to tempt. Please stop by on our contents page and take a look.

We would like to hugely thank all our contributors and readers for being with us and helping us grow. I would like to thank my team, who despite hurdles they face, always lend a helping hand and wonderful words from their pens or computers to get Borderless on its feet. I apologise for the delay and thank you all for your patience. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fabulous artwork.

I wish you all a wonderful July and peace in a war-torn world. We are all affected by the ongoing conflicts. Let us hope for peaceful and just resolutions.

Thanks.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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Review

The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh

Reviewed by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) is a reflection on the Hindi film industry as much as it’s a biography of the legendary actor.  An eminent scriptwriter in Bollywood and director, Ghosh was an award-winning Bengali writer whose oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As a script writer, he wrote the scripts in Hindi for iconic films like Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta and many more.

Ashok Kumar (1911-2001) was a part of both the small and the big screen in India while he lived. Was Ashok Kumar a star? What was his position in the Hindi film industry? When did he become a character actor? Was he a good actor? These questions are very easy to answer about others but when it comes to ‘Dadamoni’, as he was fondly called, the answers become nebulous.

Ashok Kumar started his career in the early 1930s which makes him senior to stars like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand who made their debuts and attained stardom when Ashok Kumar was already a reigning star. Ghosh knew Ashok Kumar personally for many years. And the personal touch comes through in many places – through anecdotes and because of the regard that shines through the narrative. The jokes that Ashok Kumar cracked from time to time, the things the thespian told the author, all find place in the book. There is also a visible attempt to protect Dadamoni’s reputation against any allegation of vices generally attributed to stars. Ghosh, who had gone to Bombay as part of Bimal Roy’s team, constantly tries to establish Dadamoni as a gentle, thoughtful and educated person.

But this gentle, thoughtful and educated person didn’t have it easy in the world of films. Ashok Kumar had a shaky start. A shy and retiring person, he had gone to Bombay while studying to become a lawyer in Calcutta — to become a director. The ambition was idealistically driven – films, a new medium then, could be a means of educating people. But fate intervened. The person supposed to play the hero’s role in Achhut Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) had gone missing and the search for a replacement was on.

One day, Ashok Kumar, an employee of Bombay Talkies then, discovered the owner of the studio, Himanshu Rai, quizzically looking at him. Rai had found the replacement for the hero of Achhut Kanya. But for the hero, it was beyond belief that he could act in a movie. The most endearing part of the book is how this diffident hero finds his footing in the industry becoming its earliest and biggest star. And the most poignant part is the gradual decline and death of the studio system even as its product – Ashok Kumar – rose to new heights.

As the narrative draws to a close, one is left wondering what is Ashok Kumar’s position in the legion of Bollywood stars? This has been answered exhaustively in the ‘Afterword’ by Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent film critic and Ghosh’s daughter, who brings in not only personal lore but also her own experience. She tells us Ashok Kumar served “as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterisations, voice control, timing, gestures postures” and that he transformed “the acting style in Indian cinema from theatrical to naturalistic – which is still the cinema language worldwide.”

Naming him the “Elder brother of the industry”, Sengupta asserts, “I’d say he is the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood.” She brings in his stories of interactions with film stars, his hits and directorial ventures, his launching of major actors and his deep links with them, including his acclaimed brother, Kishore Kumar, with more anecdotes from multiple eminent actors like Shammi Kapoor, Moushumi Chatterjee, David Lean and his associates and family ties that stretch to embrace actors from different religion and race. Bharti Jaffrey, Ashok Kumar’s daughter, who has written a heartfelt forward for this edition, is married to actor Saeed Jaffrey’s elder brother.

What makes this book unique is that Ghosh wrote this book in English himself and it has been republished posthumously[1] with the addition of a forward and an exhaustive afterword by the well-known daughters of the two film icons. It also has classic photographs of Ashok Kumar. Both the emotionally charged forward by award-winning actress Bharti Jaffrey, and the afterword by Sengupta, a national film award-winning journalist, explore further the enigma that was Ashok Kumar. By the end of the ‘Afterword’, one realises how deeply tied and organic are the Bollywood families and how much they do to try and create bridges and close gaps – the Ashok Kumar Foundation being one such effort. The whole package – the forward, the narrative, the photographs and the afterword — leaves one spellbound.  

CLICK HERE TO READ THE BOOK EXCERPT


[1] First published in 1995 by Harper Collins – mentioned in the ‘Preface’ written by Ghosh in 1995 and reproduced in this edition published by Speaking Tiger Books.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Excerpt

Wordsmith Sarat Chandra and Tell-tale Ashok Kumar

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Wordsmith Sarat and Tell-tale Ashok 

The child Ashok Kumar was highly imaginative and could tell stories to his maternal grandfather, Raja Shib Chandra.

‘Come on boy, tell me a new story,’ the Raja would demand with a smile.

The five-year-old great grandson would gravely start, ‘You see great grandpa, yesterday I was walking through the jungle –‘

The Raja narrowed his eyes, ‘At what time?’ he interrupted.

The boy did not lose his nerve. ‘Yesterday, when you were having a nap after your lunch,’ he kept up the grave tone.

‘And where was the jungle?’ the Raja quipped. 

The boy smiled, ‘On the bank of the Ganga.’

‘Carry on,’ said the Raja.

‘As I walked through the jungle,’ little Ashok went on, ‘there were birds chirping and peacocks dancing. I was feeling fine when suddenly I heard a tiger roar. I stopped. The birds stopped chirping, the peacocks flew fast and in panic. I turned around. And there it was standing, the tiger. It was a huge tiger, snarling at me and thrashing its tail on the ground…

‘Trembling in fear, I broke into a run. The tiger roared and sprang at me. I ran and ran hard. The tiger chased me. It almost reached me, it would soon fall upon me, grab me, swallow me. What shall I do? Oh, how shall I save myself? I prayed for wings and they sprang out of my two shoulders and I flew upward through the trees and escaped in the air. The tiger roared and roared and roared on…’

Little Ashok looked at the Raja for a due appreciation.

But the Raja looked at him with disbelief in his eyes and asked, ‘So you can grow wings out of your shoulders?’

The boy stared at him and nodded, ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Show me,’ the Raja demanded.

Undaunted, the boy said, ‘You become a tiger and I will show you my wings.’

The Raja roared with laughter. ‘Bravo my little one, bravo!’ he conceded. 

Two servants peeped in at this moment on hearing the Raja’s laughter. The Raja beckoned one of them in.

‘Jagai, go to Upen Ganguly’s house and house and call that dark chap – you know –‘ Raja Shib Chandra ordered.

‘Yes, master.’

Soon a young man came there. He was dark but attractive, with handsome features and exceptionally bright, penetrating eyes.

The Raja welcomed him, ‘Come here, my lad. Do you know my great grandson, Ashok?’

‘No sir – but now I will know him,’ the dark young man smiled at little Ashok and added, ‘Ashok is the name of an Emperor.’

The little boy smiled back at the compliment.

Shib Chandra said to the young man, ‘Look here, my great grandson is no less than you — he can also tell stories. Tell him a story Ashok.’

Before starting to narrate a story Ashok looked at the young man and asked, ‘Have you ever eaten silver rice and fried silver parval?’

‘I will eat them when I find them.’

Many many years later when the cinema houses displayed a ‘House Full’ board everytime an Ashok Kumar film was released, New Theatres of Calcutta invited the actor to join the concern. It had earned the reputation of producing quality films — and to this day the name remains nonpareil in the history of Indian cinema.

Ashok Kumar agreed to meet them to discuss the matter. When he met Birendra Nath Sircar, the managing director, in his office there were some other directors and a dark man with silvery hair and sharp burning eyes.

Mr Sircar introduced the gentleman in dhoti-kurta by saying, ‘Mr Ganguly, he is our pride — Shri Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the great novelist.’

Startled, Ashok Kumar turned towards the legend and bowed low.

Sarat Chandra smilingly asked, ‘Do you remember me?’

Ashok shook his head, ‘No sir — sorry.’

Sarat Chandra laughed and said, ‘Try and you will remember that you used to narrate stories to me — of silver made rice and fried silver parval.’

And the scene came back to Ashok Kumar. So, he used to narrate to this great magician — story writer Sarat Chandra!

Every one had a hearty laugh when Sarat Chandra narrated the story from the past. In his tum Ashok Kumar narrated how Sarat Chandra’s uncle, the writer Upen Ganguly, would regretfully say, ‘This chap, my nephew Sarat, does nothing! I am worried about him.’ This unleashed another round of laughter.

Ashok Kumar finally acted in only one film, Samar. He did not join New Theatres. It was Bombay Talkies that had groomed him and made him what he was. He would never leave Bombay Talkies.

(But, in 1953, after Bombay Talkies closed its shutter for good, he bought the rights to Parineeta. It was the first film of Ashok Kumar Productions.) 

(Excerpted from Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books 2022)

 About the Book:

Ashok Kumar (1911–2001), fondly known as Dadamoni, is one of the great icons of Hindi cinema. This warm, intimate biography traces his remarkable journey, from reluctant actor to Bollywood’s first superstar and, in his later years, a much-loved presence on national television.

Born in Bhagalpur (then in the Bengal Presidency), Ashok Kumar was enthralled by the ‘bioscope’ as a child. In his twenties, he quit his law studies and came to Bombay to become a film director. But life—rather, Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies—had different plans for him. Despite the director’s reservations, he was cast in the lead role opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 film Jeevan Naiyya when the original hero went missing. The same year, Ashok Kumar was paired with Devika Rani again in Achhut Kanya, which was a blockbuster. The transformation of the accidental hero into a charismatic star-actor had begun. Over the next six decades, he proved himself to be a master of the craft, playing cop and thief; genial grandfather and sly matchmaker; villain and hero; heartbroken lover and suave rake with equal ease in numerous films, including Kismet, Mahal, Parineeta, Kanoon, Gumrah, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Mamta, Jewel Thief, Khoobsurat and Khatta Meetha. But as Nabendu Ghosh writes, Ashok Kumar’s world was much larger—he was also a charming conversationalist, mentor, homeopath, astrologer, painter, linguist, limericist and, above all, loyal friend and devoted husband and father. This book is also a mini-history of the early decades of Bombay’s Hindustani cinema, and its pages are rich with little anecdotes featuring legends like—besides Devika Rani—Saadat Hasan Manto, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and B.R. Chopra. Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru make brief appearances too, as does Morarji Desai.

For anyone interested in the Hindi cinema of yesteryears—in its cosmopolitanism, camaraderie and charm—this thoroughly engaging book is a must-read.

About the Author:

 Nabendu Ghosh (1917–2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories and Mistress of Melodies, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta. As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan.

Click here to read the review

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Tribute

Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay, edited by Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta, to mark his birth anniversary, Siri Beye Nichey (Down the Stairs) was first published in the Bengali weekly, Sharadiya Bartaman (1998) and subsequently in the anthology, Paresh Mandaler Laash ( Paresh Mandal’s Corpse, Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh).

“This does not feel like Bangur Hospital, Jibu,” Judhistir said to his son.

Jiban was leading the way. Sunayani was following with her husband, holding his hand to lend him support.

Jiban replied in a very low voice, “This is Bangur…”

“Can you again see with your eyes?” Sunayani snubbed her husband. On hearing this Judhistir fell silent. 

But he was right: it was not Bangur, it was Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital.

Jiban and Sunayani did not utter ‘Cancer’ lest the word put a scare in Judhistir and he refused to go for the required tests. Of late Judhistir would cough continuously and groan, feeling pain on the right side of his back. So initially he was taken to Bangur Hospital. After the preliminary tests they referred him to this hospital for the final detection. That’s how they were all here this morning.

Judhistir was not blind by birth. He lost his eyesight when he was sixty — a fallout of Glaucoma. But he has implanted in his mind whatever he has seen over the last sixty years, so he can still make out where he is and which way he is going.

It took about four hours to finish all the tests. The results would be known to them in another three days. They all came out of the hospital.

At around two in the afternoon, they returned to their single bricked home in a Jadavpur shanty. A rented space where they’ve been living for the last thirty years, paying Rs 50 a month. 

Their poverty set in when Judhistir went blind some fifteen years ago. That’s when they rented out two of their rooms and a small corner of the veranda to Shibnath for Rs 30 a month, to supplement their income.

Jiban’s four-year-old son, Nantu, was playing in the courtyard with Shanti’s eight-year-old daughter, Ritu. As soon as he saw his grandparents he ran up to them, hugged his grandma and asked, “What have you brought for me Thamma?”

With a smile Sunayani brought out a small parcel of sweets from her bag and gave Nantu and Ritu a piece each. She had bought these on her way back. It made both the kids very happy.

Judhistir coughed a couple of times and flopped on the bench in the veranda.

Shibnath’s widowed sister Shanti came out. Casting a glance at Judhistir she asked Sunayani, “What did the doctors say, Mashima?”

“They carried out the tests,” Jiban answered. “Nothing serious or to be scared of.” As he spoke, he looked at his mother, then at Shanti. Eye to eye they had a silent communication. Then Shanti said, “Well then Mashima, finish your bath and have your lunch. It’s already very late.”

“Yes Ma, I’m going in,” Sunayani said stepping towards her room. “Let me arrange for your Mesho Mashai’s bath first.”

When Jiban and Sunayani were by themselves she whispered to her son, “I’m scared for your father Jibu…”

“If you fear from now Maa, how will you survive?” Jiban smiled. “We will worry about fear after three days.”

*

After lunch when Sunayani brought the medicines to her husband, Judhistir said slowly, “Because of me both Jibu and you had to skip work today.”

Sunayani placed a hand on his shoulder as she said, “One of us stayed away for his father, another for her husband, so don’t you worry.”

Judhistir smiled. And repeated the words he always uttered, whenever he was happy or sorrowful: “Hari Hari Hari!”

*

Judhistir had been blind for the last 15 years but before that he had seen and enjoyed life. So even now, when the light was switched off he could feel the darkness deepen and when the sun rose he can feel that too, and his dull eyes shimmered with life. Slowly he rose from his bed and called out, “Jiban’s Maa, d’you hear me?”

“Coming dear,” her trembling voice answered.

The sweet smell of something frying in the pan entered his nostrils — it signalled that a new day had started.

Sunayani came and stood by him. The heat of the stove imparted a blush of pink to her fair skin. Her forehead gleamed with beads of sweat. Her face, though lined with wrinkles, showed that she was once a beautiful lady.

“Awake? Are you feeling well?”

“Yes dear, I am fine.”

Combing his unruly hair with her fingers, Sunayani said, ” Wait, I’ll get you your tea.”

“Is Jiban up?”

“Still lying in. I will wake him up with his morning cup.”

“Where’s Nantu?”

“Sleeping in Shanti’s room, next to Ritu.”

“Hari Hari Hari!”

*

The clock hands were racing. Judhistir realised that Jiban was up. Shanti’s brother Shibnath, his wife Jaba, Nantu and Ritu were all awake. 

Shibnath worked as a salesman in a stationary shop at Gariahat. He was ready to leave. Jaba served as a maidservant in three houses in Jadavpur itself. She too would leave to be back by five in the evening. Sunayani would finish her cooking and go to one Sanjay Chatterjee’s house where she supervised the kitchen. Jiban, a peon in an advertising firm, was also preparing to leave. Sunayani and Jiban respectively brought home Rs 500 and Rs 800. This 1300/- was their total source of livelihood.

Sunayani helped her husband to wash up and take a bath. Then she fed him some roti and tea. She finished all her chores and kept lunch ready for him. Shanti had become like their daughter. All through the day she took care of not only Judhistir but also of Nantu. In her spare time she made paper bags. Every Saturday a man stopped by to collect them. The  profit wasn’t much but even Rs 100 was not to be sneezed at.

By this time Jiban and Sunayani were ready to leave. “I’m off Baba,” he said to his father. “All right son — Hari Hari Hari!” “I’m off too — you take care.” 

“Hyan, you too. Hari Hari Hari…”

*

Mother and son headed out of the house together. Once on the main road, they took a bus to Lord’s Crossing. Within five minutes they arrived at the junction. From there they reached the Lake Gardens Super Market where Sunayani sat down under a leafy tree near the eastern gate.

“Okay Maa, I’ll carry on now,” Jiban said to her.

“Hyan,” Sunayani nodded to him, “but be very careful while on work.”

“Yes Maa,” Jiban went his way.

Sunayani had come in a worn out, soiled sari. She pulled the pallu over her head and sat down. The bindi on her forehead was bright crimson. She leaned against the wall with the palm of her right arm stretched out. The passers-by, in a rush to get to the market, didn’t even cast a glance at her. But those coming out with their hands laden with purchases all noticed her saddened, poverty stricken beautiful face. Some of them stopped to drop ten paisa, 20 paisa or a quarter too in her outstretched hand. At times some of them moved on and then came back to give her something. 

This was a daily occurrence. Sometimes two or three shoppers dropped even a rupee each while five-six others happily parted with 50 p coins. “May God bless you!” Sunayani gratefully muttered. Or she varied the blessing: “May you be victorious!”

In other words, Sunayani neither cooked nor supervised the kitchen in any house. She had taken to begging because she did not get a suitable job. But she did not tell this to Judhistir whose self-respect was intense although Shibnath, Jaba and Shanti were aware of this. This job easily earned her 300 to 400 rupees every month.

*

By now it was around 8 am. Jiban could be spotted in Lake Gardens. He had come out of the house wearing a dhoti and kurta. Now he had put the kurta away in a plastic bag and in its place, covered himself with a thin white cotton drape. His hair was ruffled. He’d not shaven since the previous day. In his underarm he was holding a rolled straw mat. He had grief writ over his face.

He entered a three-storeyed building and climbed up the stairs. 

There were three flats on each floor. He pressed the first bell. 

A lady opened the door. “What d’you want?”

“I’ve lost my mother Madam! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of mourning.”

With sharp eyes the lady looked at Jiban. The sadness on his lean and tender face touched the mother in her. “Wait,” she told him and went indoors. A minute later she emerged with an almost-torn two rupee note.

Jiban bowed low as he took the money and slowly walked towards the staircase. As soon as the lady shut her door he turned around and pressed the bell on the second door.

“Who’s there?” A heavy voice floated out moments before the door opened. A thickset Punjabi gentleman in his mid-fifties came out.

“What do you want?” The gentleman asked with a frown, then repeated the question in Bengali, “Ki chai?”

A charming teenaged girl came and stood behind him. Jiban repeated what he’d just phrased: “I’ve lost my mother Sir! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of Matridaay.”

“Matridaay?!” The Punjabi gentleman could not comprehend the term. 

“Papa, his mother is dead,” the girl helpfully interpreted. “He needs money for her shraddha. He seeks some help.”

“Rubbish!” The man uttered and went in. 

The girl stepped forward and asked in unaccented Bengali, “When did your mother die?”

“Day before yesterday sister.”

“What happened?”

“She had cancer.”

“Oh!” she said, and shouted, “Papa, his mother died of cancer.”

“Okay okay…” Once again the man stood framed by the doorway. He handed his daughter a two-rupee coin and said, “Go give it to him.”

The girl gave him the two rupees and said, “Our sympathy is with you.”

“Thank you sister, thank you.”

The girl closed the door. 

*

Now the third flat. The door was opened by a bespectacled Bengali gentleman in pajama kurta. He would be in his forties. 

The moment he saw Jiban he harshly demanded, “What d’you want? Help? Money?”

“Yes sir, for my mother’s last rites I need some help.”

“Help? No hope of that here.”

“Have pity on me sir!”

“No, I never pity anybody. Asking for pity is your business but not showing pity is my belief. Go, get lost.”

Jiban looked at the man as if crestfallen. He shut the door with a bang.

Defeated, Jiban slowly started to walk away. Just then the same gentleman opened the door again. 

“Hey, come here.”

Giving him a rupee coin he ordered, “Scoot!”

Again the door closed with a bang.

*

Jiban climbed one floor down.

The door to the first flat was opened by a Bengali youth. He smiled as he asked, “Mother’s dead, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir, my mother…”

“Oh what a truthful Yudhisthir!” he mocked. “Get lost!”

The door closed on Jiban’s face.

The next flat was opened by an elderly lady. She was saddened by Jiban’s mourning uniform and grief stricken appearance. “Wait,” she said before disappearing inside. She returned with a five rupee note.

The lady in the third flat also gave him a rupee.

Finally Jiban came to the ground floor. An elderly Marwari opened the first door. Patiently he listened to what Jiban parroted, then with a stern face and a quiet voice he said, “You cheat! Bolt – or I’ll call the police.” The door banged shut.

The next flat yielded Re 1, and a paan-chewing Marathi in the last flat also parted with a rupee.

Coming out of the building he counted his earning — Rs 13. 

From one building to another, Jiban roamed about in the Lake Gardens area till 12.30 pm. Then he halted – “All the ranting will start now,” he thought to himself. So he counted his net collection of the morning – Rs 30.50. Not bad at all. Satisfied, he returned to the supermarket where his mother was waiting.

*

“Had your lunch?” Sunayani asked.

“No. What about you?”

“No. Come let’s eat together.” Both of them took out their tiffin boxes filled with three rotis each, some dry vegetables, and molasses. They ate, then had their fill of water. Aah! Deep satisfaction. 

“How much did you earn this morning?”

“Good intake Maa, about Rs 30. And you?”

“Rs 11.”

A moment’s hesitation, then Sunayani said, “Sometimes I fear for you… This profession…”

“Maa, people are still kind,” Jiban reassured her, “if they hear something has happened to your parents they take pity on you.”

Sunayani fell silent. Then both of them rested under the same tree. It was 4 pm but the market was still dozing, the shops had their shutters down. Sunayani would stretch out her arms again at 5 but Jiban carried on. He tried his luck in ten-twelve other houses and stopped after sunset. This round fetched him another Rs 15. It would take another week to complete Lake Gardens. This was a classy area, and people still respect the word ‘Maa’. So his earning was bound to be good despite all the abuses.

*

It was late evening when Jiban returned home. Shanti was at the door, she gave him a sweet smile. At about twenty eight Shanti was lean, carelessly dressed, had no time for grooming and still was nice looking. They stared at each other for a few seconds, conveying their feelings to each other through their eyes. Then Jiban went in.

Judhistir heard Jiban’s footsteps and asked, “Jibu, hasn’t your mother come home yet?”

“No Baba but she will any minute now.”

“I was just a little worried. It’s a bit late today, isn’t it? Past 7…”

“No! It’s just 6.30…”

Judhistir kept quiet.

Jiban washed, bathed, put on a rather old but cheerful lungi and a fresh shirt. Cautiously he went out of the house, came to the main road and sat in Anil’s Tea Stall. “Come friend!” Anil invited him in. Jiban sat in a corner, picked up the day’s newspaper and started going through the headlines.

Half an hour later he asked his friend for a cup of tea. Like every other day Anil put two cups of tea next to him at one go. Jiban sat there till 9 pm. In between he lit up a cigarette, his one luxury. He sat there listening to all the conversations between the other customers. He set out for home when Anil closed shop for the day. This has become his daily routine.

Back home he played with Nantu and Ritu, he chit-chatted with Shibnath and Jaba, had small talk with the others. Then came dinner. After washing up, it was time to go to bed.

But for some reason Jiban couldn’t sleep. As on other days he woke up in the middle of the night. The fears that were buried deep within now started to haunt him. Images of his past life surfaced on the screen of his mind like scenes from a movie.

Jiban had studied up to class nine when he landed his first job — in a decent steel factory. In four years he mastered the job but just as he was to be made permanent in employment the Employees Union declared a strike. Jiban had played an active role in the strike. The labourers won after a month of striking work but six months down Jiban was laid off for a small mistake. The Union sympathized with him but did not come to his help as he was a “casual worker.” He was twenty six then.

After this he got a job as a peon in an office at Dharamtala. Around this time he married Shipra from his neighbourhood. His mother did not consent to the marriage but he was adamant. A year later Nantu was born and two years later Shipra eloped with the local hooligan, Paresh. What shame! No one knew their whereabouts now.

From then on his life changed. Unsuccessfully he tried his hand at different jobs and several businesses — all in vain. At last when he found no other way he took to earning by deceiving others. But now what?

His blind father’s condition was deteriorating by the day, his mother’s health was failing yet she had taken to begging on the streets under the open sky. And Nantu was growing up. What does the future hold for him? 

The thought made him restless. Edgy. He got out of his bed and lit a cigarette — the second luxury of the day.

*

Old people don’t easily fall asleep, either.

From his bed Jiban could hear his parents talk.

Judhistir was whispering to his wife, “I feel nervous when you are gone from home for so long. I get depressed. I can’t see you even when you are at home but I feel…”

“Don’t I know that!” Sunayani placed a hand on his mouth. “And am I happy staying away from home for hours on end? But now please be quiet. Sleep…”

*

The next morning Jiban went to the Cancer Hospital to collect his father’s test report.

A long queue.

After about half an hour the doctor summoned him.

“Who are you to Judhistir Das? Any blood relation?”

“Yes, I’m his son.”

The doctor was sympathetic. “I’m sorry to inform you,” he shook his head, “your father has cancer in his right lungs and it has reached the terminal stage. You should have started the treatment long ago. Now he has a very limited his time span.”

Jiban gulped twice before speaking, “Even so, how many more years doctor?”

With a sombre face the doctor replied, “Six to seven months, at the most a year.”

It took Jiban some time to find his voice, “Any possible treatment?”

“Your father is beyond any treatment,” the doctor said, “but if, for your peace of mind, you wish to go for an operation, it would cost approximately Rs 20-25,000 here in Kolkata and about Rs 60-70,000 in Mumbai. It is for you to decide. Anyway, here are the reports and a prescription of the medicines he will need right away.”

As he took the reports Jiban felt as helpless as his blind father. When he staggered out of the hospital it was 11 am. It was late, still he went about his business as usual. He did the rounds of 10-12 houses in Lake Gardens repeating the same story of his mother’s death and managed to earn Rs 16.

Sunayani was anxiously waiting for her son. The moment she sighted him she eagerly asked, “Got the report?”

“Yes Ma,” he flopped next to his mother.

“What is ailing him?” 

Jiban could not utter the ‘Cancer’ word.

“Why aren’t you answering? What’s wrong?”

Jiban recounted everything he’d heard from the doctor. Sunayani stared vacantly at him, then lay down on the ground.

“Maa!”

Sunayani did not respond.

“Maa it won’t do to break down. Oh Maa!”

“Let me get my breath back son…”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” Jiban said, “not even by mistake.”

“But we must try to save him.”

“Yes Maa, we must. But if we break down who will try?”

Sunayani nodded, “Right.”

*

As soon as Sunayani entered the house in the evening Shanti rushed out and told her, “Mashima some relative of yours had come today — he saw you begging in the Lake Gardens Super Market and gave the news to Mesho Mashai. Since then he is livid and ranting like a madman.”

Sunayani thought it would be better not to face Judhistir then. She wanted to talk to Jiban first and decide how to deal with the situation. 

Judhistir’s voice could be heard calling out, “Shanti! Ma Shanti!”

Shanti walked up to his room, “What d’you want Mesho Mashai?”

“Isn’t your Mashima home yet?”

“Shanti looked at Sunayani who shook her head to say “No.”

Shanti replied, “No Mesho Mashai.”

“And Jiban? He isn’t back too?”

“No Mesho Mashai, Jiban Da isn’t back either.”

“Hari Hari Hari! Oh god, please take me to you!”

Hearing his anguished cry Sunayani was reminded of the report from the hospital and tears welled up in her eyes. Somehow she controlled herself.

Nantu and Ritu were still playing in the courtyard. Shibnath returned from work followed by Jaba. In a low voice Shanti told them not to ask Sunayani anything.

After a while Judhistir again called out, “Shanti! O Ma Shanti!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai?”

“Your Mashima…”

“Still not back — nor is Jiban Da -“

“Why is Jiban’s mother so late today?”

At that very moment Jiban entered the house. Sunayani gestured to him to be quiet, drew him aside and told him all the developments. “What will happen now Jiban?” she asked him in despair.

Jiban thought for a while, then said, “We’ve lied to Baba all these years but now it’s time to tell him the truth.”

Again Judhistir called out, “Shanti! O my Shanti Ma!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai, tell me…” She came out of her room and spotted Jiban.

“Aren’t they home yet? Jiban? His mother?”

“Yes we’re home!” Sunayani spoke up. “What’s the matter? Why are you so agitated?”

“Both of you come to me right away,” the blind man’s voice resounded with sternness.

“Yes we’re here,” Sunayani came and stood near her husband.

Judhistir couldn’t see her but his sense of smell recognized her presence. Rudely he asked her, “Have I ever sinned against anyone? Have I committed any crime? Did I ever steal or pick any pocket?”

Sunayani stiffened, “Why? What happened?”

“Answer me first!”

“No you’ve not. True to your name you are truthful, pious.”

Jiban came and stood behind his mother, behind him stood Shanti. “Indeed!” Judhistir’s stern voice rose a pitch higher, “now you’re spewing sarcasm! Tell me, did I ever beg before anybody on the streets?”

“Never.”

“Then why do you?”

“Who gave you this news?”

“Sudhir, my first cousin. He saw you with outstretched arms. Tell me, is that true?”

“Yes, I was begging. But not just today, I’ve been doing that for the last two years, stretching out my hands to arouse pity in passers-by. Every human has God inside him, I spread my arms to that God. Because I want to live. I didn’t get any other job and I don’t have the strength to roam about in search of a new job. I have done no crime. If begging was a crime, people would not give me any money.”

Judhistir was dumbfounded. He remained speechless for some time, then said, “You… Are you preaching to me?”

“No, only you men can preach — tell us what to do and what not to do. You taught me all these years, and I lived the way you wanted me to. Now I will do as my conscience dictates. Yes I will beg — and you don’t say one more word on this.”

Judhistir suddenly screamed out, “Jiban!”

He stepped forward, “Yes Baba?”

“Do you know about your mother’s job?”

“Yes I do,” Jiban replied. “I also beg but in a different way, to earn our upkeep,” he went on. “We didn’t tell you because it would not be to your liking.”

Speechless, Judhistir stared vacantly into air.

Jiban continued to speak, “Baba don’t carry on like this, don’t be angry. This is where Fate has taken us. Now even if you want us to stop, we’ll carry on doing the same work.”

“What are you saying?!! You…y-o-u…”

“Yes, we’ll continue to do whatever we’re doing. I haven’t done what so many others are doing out of sheer necessity — hooliganism, thievery, hijacking, murder…”

Judhistir saw red. “Go away, get lost!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “You too go away, go away. I will not say a word more, not a word..”

Jiban moved out of the room, Shanti too returned to her room.

Sunayani stared at her husband for a few seconds, then she too slowly walked out.

*

Jiban didn’t care. Like every other day he put on his cheerful old lungi and a fresh kurta; went to Anil’s Tea Stall, stayed there till 9 pm and returned home. 

Judhistir now started on a new track — hunger strike.

Sunayani came asking him to have his dinner and he declined. The more she asked him to have his meal the more vigorously he refused it, “No – no – no.”

Then Shanti came to plead with him, “Mesho Mashai don’t be angry, not with food!”

Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “No!”

Shibnath and Jaba came with the same request, and got the same reply, “No.”

“Oh Mesho Mashai…”

Before they could say anything else Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “My dears, please don’t ask me to eat. Why worry? I am not committing hara kiri — but I simply can’t swallow a morsel today.”

*

Only Jiban didn’t utter a single word.

Like every other day he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. The chronology of his failures danced before his eyes like a movie and then evaporated in thin air with his cigarette smoke.

Today he tried to listen in but couldn’t hear his parents talk. Instead he could hear his father cough. He was coughing incessantly. He must collect money for his father’s treatment. By hook or crook. He has made some friends in Anil’s Tea Stall — three of them were daredevils. They’re crazed by want — poverty — and greed. What if he planned with them to rob a bank in the suburbs of Kolkata? 

But what if he could not do that? His father’s death would draw closer. It would be sooner, faster. “But what can be done?” Jiban thought philosophically. Humans came into this world and, like any creature big or small, like mosquitoes, house flies, cockroaches or ants, they die…

Irrelevant, but he also thought, “Will it be appropriate to marry Shanti before robbing the bank?”

*

In the morning Sunayani brought a cup of tea and sat next to her husband. Judhistir turned his face away from her. “What happened? You won’t have tea? Still angry?! Okay,” she said, “if you don’t, I’ll stop eating and drinking too. But do remember that I will not stop doing the work I do, because I’m doing it for our grandson.”

Sunayani stood up to go. Suddenly Judhistir reached out and caught hold of her hand. “Give me the tea,” he said.

Though Judhistir started to eat he didn’t speak with anybody. He simply couldn’t accept the fact that his wife was begging on the streets for a livelihood.

*

For ten days Jiban begged with everyone to help him in his ‘mother’s death’. After ten days he shaved off his beard. Now started another chapter of his life: he was collecting money for ‘Sri Gourango Ashram of Basirhat.’ 

This time around he was to be spotted in the Paikpara and Lake Town areas of North Kolkata. He was donning a white dhoti and a handwoven khadi kurta. He had a namavali – a folded stole printed with the name of gods – over one shoulder and on the other a white cotton sling bag. Inside the bag he had two receipt books and a pen. He sported a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and was singing the Vaishnav chant in praise of ‘Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam’.

In this avatar Jiban collected donations from more or less everyone — even aetheists give him a rupee! When he plays this role Jiban went by the name of ‘Gobinda Das.’  He was very professional about the job: he signed a receipt for whoever donated some money, big or small. Then he folds his hands and humbly salutes like a born Vaishnav, “Jai Nitai Gaur!” 

He spent ten days in this manner and then stopped. Next Jiban thought of another way to earn money. With his father’s cancer report and the prescriptions for medicines he went from door to door in the aristocratic area of Alipore. And he collected quite a bit of money. On the last day he did not shave. The next day he went back to the original strategy of seeking money on the pretext of “Matridaay”. “Mother’s funeral… Please help!” This time he chose to operate in the upper crust area of Ballygunge.

*

Jiban pressed the bell on the first door. It was opened by a handsome man in a dressing gown. “What d’you want?” he asked in Bengali. Jiban lowered his head, “My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I’m in mourning…”

“Silent!” The man roared like a blood hound. “Not a word more — just go out!”

The next door was opened by an aged lady. She heard Jiban out and handed him Rs 2. 

A sober Punjabi gentleman emerged from the third door. On hearing what Jiban said he sighed. “Mother! Oh! Hold on son.” He went indoors and came out with a fiver. Handing it over he said, “May your mother find peace.”

The fourth door was opened by a Bengali youth in his twenties. Soon as Jiban uttered the word ‘Maatriday’ he lost his cool. “You cheat! Aren’t you tired of lying?” he shouted.

“What’s the matter Apurbo?” Another young man of his age came out.

This guy who lived in the Lake Gardens area recognized Jiban — he’d seen Jiban in his house in the same attire. “Yaar this man had come to our house a month back. What’s he saying now? His mother’s dead and he needs money for her funeral?”

“Correct. He’s saying he needs help for her shraddha.”

“No Apurbo, we must do a funeral for this cheat,” the boy angrily spewed out. “His mother’s been dying through an entire month!”

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” Jiban said with an innocent face.

“Cheat! You’ve the gumption to say I’m mistaken!” The Lake Gardens boy came out aggressively.

Sensing trouble, Jiban retreated and broke into a run. Now the Ballygunge boy came out.

“Grab him! Don’t let the cheat get away…” The Lake Gardens boy chased Jiban saying, “He deceives people by saying his mother’s dead and swindles them out of money!” 

As the cousins ran after Jiban some boys on the street also joined the chase. Before they could lay their hands on him Jiban felt a stab of pain in his chest. He stopped running, tumbled, fell on the road and lost consciousness.

*

Jiban did not return home that night. When he remained missing the next morning Shibnath set out to lodge a ‘Missing’ diary at the Police Station. Just then a young man came with the news that Jiban was admitted in Dr K Basu’s private clinic. He’d suffered a heart attack but at present he was stable.

This worried Sunayani. She joined Shibnath and they followed the youth to Dr Basu’s clinic at Gariahat.

On seeing his mother Jiban gave her a wan smile.

Sunayani and Shibnath met Dr Basu. Before they could reveal their identities Dr Basu explained, “Yesterday I witnessed some commotion on the road and then saw this man lying on the footpath. I went to him and realised he’d had a heart attack. He would have died on the spot if he’d not been taken to a hospital. Since the government facilities were at quite a distance I brought him here to my clinic. Now his condition is under control. You can take him home after two days.”

The doctor continued to speak, “From his attire I can see his mother’s dead. I can also make out from his condition that he’s not well off. So you don’t need to pay me anything. But make sure he gets complete rest for at least two months. And he must be given proper food and medicine. He must undergo some tests as well.”

After two days Jiban came home in a taxi. He entered to see Nantu and Ritu playing in the courtyard. He kissed them both, went to his room holding Shanti’s hand and lay down in his bed.

Judhistir rushed out of his room to meet his son and collided against the wall. Sunayani led him by his hand and made him sit on Jiban’s bed. Judhistir scrambled around and placed his hand on his son’s head.

Two days passed.

Sunayani returned to her normal routine. She gave Judhistir and Jiban their morning tea, and their medicine; she finished cooking, fed her husband, gave some instructions to Shanti, then stood at the door of Judhistir’s room. “We’re in need of money,” she told him. “So I’m going to work, okay?”

Judhistir did not reply. Sunayani turned around to leave. But before she could cross the threshold Judhistir suddenly called out, “Listen Jiban’s Maa…”

*

Two boys in late teens were entering the Lake Gardens Super Market. Suddenly one of them started searching his pocket for his shopping list. 

” Did you misplace it somewhere?” the other boy asked.

“No, here it is. Got it.”

Hearing their voices a beggar spoke from the corner, “Have mercy on me sons!”

The boys turned around to see the beggar.

“New face?”

“Blind.”

“Is he really blind or just acting?”

“Yes sons, I’m really blind,” the beggar said.

“Really?!” Suddenly the first boy swished out a knife and made to strike him on his nose. But the beggar did not react. He didn’t draw back or turn away his face. No expression.

“Oh, he’s really blind,” the second boy said.

” Then we must give him some alms.” The boy fished out a coin, “Here grandpa, stretch out your hand.” 

They placed the coin in his palm.

Judhistir felt a deep satisfaction as he held the 50 p in his hand. It was his earning after long years, he sighed. And he thought to himself: “All these years my wife and my son have begged for my sake. Now on I will beg for my son and grandson.”

Glossary:

Thamma — Grandma

Mashima — aunty

Mesho moshai — uncle

Hyan — Yes

Pallu — the loose part of a sari, can be worn over the head or just left hanging over the shoulder like a scarf

Maatriday, Shraddha — Death rituals

Judhishtir or Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharta, was known for his legendary honesty.

Nabendu Ghosh & his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta.
Photo shared by Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Sarmishtha Mukhopadhyay is a retired teacher who has taken to translations and to writing travel blogs.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Categories
Slices from Life

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Tribute

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata

She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”

Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.

Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’

“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’

“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.

“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”

*

Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”

At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”

It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land) tears flowed down my cheeks…”

Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.

“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar  (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo

“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.  

“‘Singing for you,’ we said.  

“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.  

“But…  

“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.  

“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth. 

“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds. 

“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.  

“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.  

“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently. 

“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new. 

“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.  

“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’  

“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted. 

“At the end, someone suggested something radical.  

“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “

*

Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.

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Glossary

Khatun: A woman of rank

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
A Wonderful World

What do We Need?

 “It is not enough to try to remove wants; you can never remove them completely from outside; the far greater thing is to rouse the will of the people to remove their own wants.” — Rabindranath Tagore, A History of Sriniketan by Uma Das Gupta, published by Niyogi Books.

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Does political freedom eulogised by masses ensure housing, clothing, food, love kindness, self respect and education to all the beneficiaries of a newly structured country? Centring around this theme, we bring together writing around India’s Republic Day, when the country adopted its new constitution and called itself an independent republic with its own self-defined preamble. This happened on 26th January, 1950. Here we carry writing that reflects on the then and now of the people who have lived by that constitution defined in 1950. Some of the issues had been voiced centuries ago, by Akbar, the grand Mughal, subsequently by greats like Tagore who died long before India became an independent entity and more recently by Nabendu Ghosh. These issues, ranging from the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education, health have been variously taken up among people by NGOs and writers who have come forward to voice and act to awaken the majority to make a change. Are people then better off now than they were in the past?

Past Reflections

An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History detailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj, showcasing syncretic elements in the past, where homage to power clashes with spiritual aspirations. Click here to read.

Morichika or Mirage by Tagore: An early poem of the maestro that asks the elites to infringe class divides and mingle. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read

Current Musings

For the Want of a Cloth: Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Among Our People: Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.

We Consider Faith by Dibyajyoti Sarma: A poem that takes a look at the medley that defines faith in the current world. How has it evolved from Akbar’s times? Click here to read.

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans: Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. The support often comes from beyond the border lines and from people who live through the ordeal. Click here to read.

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore: Sayantan Sur looks into environmental hazards due to shoddy garbage disposal and describes how it can be resolved. Click here to read.

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children: Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges. Click here to read.

Categories
Stories

Give Me a Rag, Please!

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta from Bengali, Nabendu Ghosh’s short story brings out the absolute deprivation of basic needs of the common people during the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Old man Ekkori was closing in on sixty. For two years his sight has been halved by cataract – in fact he’s as good as sightless. By doing this the Preserver of People’s Dignity had protected Harimati from the indignity of standing in the nude before her father-in-law – even her husband Teenkori admitted this.

Nude? Yes, what else but nude? The two saris that Harimati had been alternating on a daily basis had become so threadbare that, forget outings, it would be tough to maintain decorum even indoors if her father-in-law still had his power of vision. And this, even though they’re not gentlefolks, they’re mere peasants.

Harimati didn’t step out of the house until sundown. Fetching water, doing the dishes, washing the clothes – everything had to wait until darkness sets in. Yes, they’re from the lower strata but her sense of decorum and shame was not a mite less than that of a refined woman belonging to genteel society. It could actually be a bit more since Harimati had always been proud of one thing: Her father had studied till the Minor (primary) school examination – something beyond her husband Teenkori and his father Ekkori.

Still, she was managing. She was determined not to be bothered by embarrassment or chagrin. But things came to a head when an uninvited guest showed up with the claim of an uncalled for kinship. There was a time when a guest was worshipped as God but those times were long past. Time had taken that culture too with it. Now if things came to pass, a father disowned his son, a husband abandoned his wife, a mother sold her offspring. Even that could be excused – they may not have had any other option.

In a peasant’s family, even dire poverty did not deprive them of a coarse variety of rice and some greens that grew in their own courtyard. The bottle gourd climbing up their fence was about to blossom, the other end of the narrow stretch fenced off had a drumstick tree that caught attention with its healthy growth.

A distant cousin from Nandangachhi had showed up unannounced. Teenkori’s maternal aunt’s paternal cousin’s son Nandalal. Some work had drawn him to their town – he would go back the same evening. He was accompanied by a helping hand – belonging to the Tili community, a notch lower than them in social standing.

That wouldn’t be a problem. They’re guests for half a day – they could and would be taken care of. They would even be served a bowl of milk – borrowed from Tarini Mondal’s family who lived next door. But trouble arose when it came to serving them lunch.

It had been decided that Teenkori’s eleven-year-old sister Protima – the motherless Pooti – would serve the meal. But when it was time to seat the guest on the floor mats, she left on the pretext of fetching water from the nearby pond. Fact was, she too felt shy. A tense Harimati had called out to her two or three times but the girl didn’t look back. Consequently Harimati couldn’t avoid the task she was planning to all this while: she had to take upon herself the onus of serving food to the guests.

Teenkori started fidgeting halfway through the meal. A glance at his wife, and the food stuck in his throat. An old old sari soiled with time, torn in places and patch-worked at spots – she was trying to cover her body with the rag. Teenkori hasn’t forgotten the pedigree of the sari. Before the War broke out, before his stillborn son came into the world, when Harimati was given a shower in the seventh month, he had purchased a pair for two rupees and one anna. One of the duo had gone months ago, this one was worn occasionally and so had lasted a while longer. Since the last year, she was reduced to wearing it every single day, and now it was threadbare. Harimati had carefully draped it over her body, yet you could clearly make out the contours of her body. Her arms, her shoulder, fleshy bulge near her chest — they refused to be subdued by the rag. Had she the cover of a chemise, she would not feel so discomfited. But in a family where procuring a coarse sari barely five yards long was itself a feat, a chemise was a luxury they did not waste time thinking about.

Teenkori’s fidgeting could be traced to one more reason. All the men seated to lunch were focused on the meal, but the eyes of the boy accompanying Nandalal were restless, untamed. Even as he was gulping the mouthfuls, his oblique stare was devouring every part of Harimati’s body. She may not have been an eyeful, nor was she repulsive. Her youthful healthy body had an innate appeal. Earlier, she was even more healthy, even more sprightly. But the efforts to evade the decimation of the horrendous famine had taken a toll. She has withered, shrunk.

There was another reason. The famine that spared not a grain of rice, no food, not even greens that could sustain them, took with it the cynosure of her eyes, her two-year-old Khokon. But if Death is an inevitable truth, so is Life. Hence Harimati lived on. And at twenty-two she is not old enough to think of Death. So, youthful vigour was still overflowing her body. Naturally Nandalal’s helping hand would eye her every now and then. The effort to hide her nudity seemed to add to her appeal for the boy.

Harimati also realised that. That is why when she came in with the repeats, she took care to drape her father-in-law’s worn out gamchha over her chest. Teenkori looked at her, it seemed to him that tears had welled up in her eyes.

*

Precisely so.

Harimati did not touch her food. She was waiting for Teenkori. The minute Nandalal left with his help, and old man Ekkori surrendered to his siesta, Teenkori went indoors. Harimati came out of the kitchen and stood before him. The tears that she had so far kept within the guard of her eyelids now flowed over.

Teenkori took Harimati’s hand in his own. Trying to stem the hot spring of unhappiness with the palm of his right hand he asked, “What’s the matter bou?”

Harimati bit her lip so as not to break the silence.

Teenkori suddenly felt irritated. It was the monsoon month of Sravan halfway through the English month of July. There was so much left to do in the fields. It was just that there were guests at home, else he would have spent the whole day in tending to the fields. They held the key, the hope and happiness for the rest of the year. Rest, the unhappiness of the womenfolk, the need to love and be loved – now was not the time for all this. His debt was mounting at he moneylender’s who could now claim every hair on his head. With barely two rupees left to pull along till Diwali in November, he would have to borrow some more. Was this the time to cry?

“Why don’t you spit it out, woman?”

“Don’t you know what’s the matter? Can’t you see with your eyes?” – Harimati hissed at him like an angry serpent. She found it difficult to keep a hold on herself since their son died. At such times, the usually quiet woman terrified Teenkori.

“What? What’s the matter? How will I know if you don’t tell me, am I omniscient?”

“Your cousin’s help was gobbling me with his indecent eyes – didn’t you see that?”

“I did,” Teenkori hung his head low.

“Then do something about it. It’s better to go around nude than to be covered in revealing clothes!”

“What can I do about it?” Teenkori didn’t want to understand. And what could he actually do even if he did understand?

Sari! Sari!!” Harimati impatiently stretched out her arms to her husband, “give me a piece of cloth, a sari… It’s so long since I asked you for one, don’t you remember? It is more than a year since you gave me one, for the pujas – can it last an entire lifetime? So many times I brought up the subject, you kept postponing it, ‘Not tomorrow, day after surely!’ ‘It’s very costly, prices have gone up, once the prices come down I’ll get you on…’ Words, words, words to fill in for inaction. You’ve caused me to go around semi-naked. Now? Now it’s impossible to go around. You get me a sari at any cost.”

The force of her words made Teenkori lose track of his thoughts. An indescribable impatience made him angry. So he spurned logic and picked on a phrase of Harimati, to vent his bitterness. With reddened eyes he glared at Harimati, “I’ve caused you to go around semi-naked?” he roared.

“You, you, you have. You’re the man of the house, can’t you get me a sari?”

“Where will I bring it from if there’s none in the market?” he demanded..

“I don’t care where you’ll get it from – just get it. I MUST HAVE IT. Issh! What an able husband, mine! Don’t they say…”

Tthaash!

Before she could say another word, Teenkori slapped Harimati hard on her cheek – he simply couldn’t take it any more.

“Hit me..! You hit me?!” Harimati’s fury fizzled out like water poured over a stove. Only tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Yes I hit you.” Teenkori grit his teeth and sat down to rummage through their trunk.

Old man Ekkori’s voice floated in, “What’s on with you guys, hunh?!”

“Nothing – go to sleep.” Teenkori shouted back at him.

“If you say so, son!” The old man’s voice echoed the dejection of the Blind King Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharat.

Teenkori extracted a few coins wrapped in a piece of rag kept safely in one corner of the trunk. They added up to some seven rupees, he counted before stashing them away in his waist. Then without a word he stepped out of the house.

*

But soon as he stepped out, he caused another uproar.

Pooti had just returned with a pitcherful of water poised on her hip. She was draped in an old gamchha around her waist, covering only the lower half of her body. That was all.

The sight of her stoked his asperity. Where was the need for the lass to go fetch water? Always evading work, always looking for fun.

“Pooti!”

“Yes?”

“Come here.”

Pooti put down the pitcher on the kitchen veranda and walked up to him. She could not fathom the reason for the summon in a grave voice.

The minute she stood by him, Teenkori traced the outline of all his five fingers on her cheek. “Where did you disappear, you brat? Didn’t your boudi tell you not to go, hunh? Went to fetch water!! Why did you go, hunh? WHY??”

The unexpected slap stunned Pooti. Pain and hurt choked her voice. She could not say a word in reply, only tears welled up in the large eyes like a dumb animal.

The reply came from Harimati. She was trembling with rage.

“So what if she had gone, why are you bossing?”

“Why should I not?”

“No, you cannot. You don’t have the right to. If you can, cast a glance on her chest.”

Teenkori cast a glance. It made Pooti swiftly retire into the kitchen. But that momentary glance was enough for Teenkori to ralise something that made him shut up.

He’d forgotten that Pooti has completed eleven. He’d forgotten that, in Bengali homes, this age spelt a lot of metamorphosis in a female anatomy. He only remembered that Pooti was his younger sister, much younger to him, even now.

But Teenkori does not know that there are glances other than a brother’s – glances that pierce through layers of clothings, so what to say of bare bodies. These glances do not make any concession for the innocence of a pre-teen girl.

Harimati chewed out every vowel, “She’s no longer a lass, she’s on her way to becoming a maiden. At this green age she’s more shy than I. Don’t you realise that?”

“Ayn?!”

Teenkori scurried out at the speed of an arrow released from the bow.

*

Teenkori walked some way at a very fast pace. Why, which way, he’d not stopped to think. He was still fuming in his mind. If his head were made of clay, then it might have let out steam into the air. Fortunately for all, his head was not made like an earthen pot.

Nibaran Dutta’s son Manish was walking down the mudpath. A young man of about twenty-six or –seven, he’d been incarcerated for five years for his involvement in the Nationalist movement. On his release three years ago he’d returned to the village. He still engaged in Nationalist activities. Dressed in a pleated Khadi dhoti, a half-shirt and a leather sandal on his feet, he had a cross-chested bag dangling by his side. It always held an assortment of books and papers. Every now and then he summons them, discusses various things about their well being, about the country’s well being. During the recent Famine and the epidemic he worked so hard – amazing! This was something to remember him by forever.

They – Manish and his partymen – were also agitating about the rationing of cloth, Teenkori was aware. At that moment he was like light at the end of a tunnel for Teenkori.

“O Manish Babu!”  

“What’s new, brother?” – Manish smiled at him.

“I need something,” Teenkori’s vice bubbled with agitation.

“Tell me. But before that, come under the shade of that tree. I’ve been walking a long way you know, all the way from … Nimdanga.”

They walked under the banyan.

“Tell me what you want.”

“It’s become impossible to do without a sari.”

“That, I do know,” he smiled feebly. “That is exactly why I am going in every direction. Tomorrow we will take out a procession. All the boys and girls from poverty stricken families in the neighbouring villages will walk to the city to file an application. You must also join us without fail.”

Teenkori could not wait to communicate his own woes, he broke in, “Yes yes, I will but I must have one right away Manish Babu.”

Manish looked at Teenkori without speaking a word.

“You’re doing so much for the nation, and you can’t do this much?” – Teenkori’s voice lost its bite and sounded pathetic.

“Nation?” Manish smiled. “Yes, I am striving for the nation but Teenkori, it is still not swadesh, my country.”

“It might be so but you have to do this favour to me Manish Babu. You simply HAVE TO. If you don’t believe me, just go and take a peep at Pooti and her boudi.”

“No need,” Manish protested. “I don’t wish to add to your woes and humiliation. But what is the matter – haven’t you been to Fakir Miya’s yet?’

Fakir Miya was the president of the Union Board and secretary of the Food Committee. He’s the one who gives out the permit for clothes.

“Yes I’ve been to him. Several times. My shoes have worn out, so many visits I’ve made. But I haven’t got the permit.”

“Really? Come with me, let me see what can be done.”

*

At every step Teenkori thought to himself, “Something will surely materialise now.” Because, like everyone else in the village, Fakir Miya also had a lot of respect for Manish.

But nothing worked out.

Fakir Miya shook his head and said, “There’s no way to give a permit, because there is NO CLOTH.”

“Nothing at all can be done?” Manish asked with gentle smile.

Fakir Miya took a deep puff of his hookah and said, “How can it be? You’ll understand once you hear me out. There are 813 families in the village and the total of dhotis and saris we have received is 65. Now you tell me, who do I give and who do I deprive?”

“Whom have you given?”

“Those who came first.”

“And those who have references, and influences, isn’t it so?” Manish softly added with a grin.

A reddish tint played on Fakir Miya’s visage for an instant. He gave a gentle twist to his mehdi-tinted goatee, then said, “See Manish, I really hold you in deep regard, that is why I am not taking any offence at what you just said. But you have indeed spoken the truth. That is why I have decided that I will distribute the next lot only among the destitute and the needy. I will care for the poor first. This time I can’t help you – you really have no idea how helpless I feel.”

Manish smiled again. “I do understand, everything. I hope you will actually carry out what you are planning to do next time. Never mind: for the time being, do give me a permit, whether you have the stock or not. I have promised it to Teenkori, let me at least keep my word to him. Besides, his family is really finding it difficult to continue in society.”

Fakir Miya glanced at Manish, then at Teenkori who was waiting pale-faced and in all humility. Fakir Miya said, “I’ll honour your word Manish. I’ll write a permit.”

Manish went homeward. And, with the permit in his hand, Teenkori raced towards Chhaganlal’s shop, his heart beating fast, now with hope and now out of fear.

*

Chhaganlal Marwari has come to this village all the way from the deserts of Rajputana. From that distant corner of the land too he had learnt about the shortage of clothes in this unmapped village of Bengal – and in answer to that he had come via Kolkata with one lota and a bundle of clothings. In the weekly fairs that dot this and so many outlying villages, he personally carried such bundles of saris and dhotis for four full years. Then gradually, with the blessings of the Elephant-Faced God with a Big Belly he earned the benevolence of Goddess Lakshmi and prospered enough to own a double-storey building at the very front of the market – just like the Englishmen who came to trade with one ship full of goods and eventually built Fort William at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

This very Chhaganlal was reclining on a bolster post-lunch. Having loosened the knot of his dhoti around his tummy, he was glancing through the previous day’s accounts.

“Sethji!” – Teenkori called out softly.

Sethji looked up, “Yes? What is it?”

Teenkori brought up the permit, with the deference of a devotee offering flowers at the feet of a deity.

“What d’you want?” Sethji demanded again.

“Cloth – I mean a sari.”

“There’s none.”

“Here’s the permit. Fakir Miya himself gave it.”

Extremely irritated, Chhaganlal stood up. “So what if Miya has given a permit? If there is no sari in the stock where can I materialise it from? Leave now – come back next month.”

“I can’t go without one Sethji, please give me one.”

“Have you gone out of you mind, ayn? None – there is not a single sari, don’t you see all the almirahs are absolutely empty?”

“Yes I see that. Still, do give me one – it will be a big favour.”

“D’you want me to take off what I’m clad in and go naked?”

Teenkori could say nothing. He could think of nothing to say, he only looked around him vacantly.

His eyes fell on the colourful saris displayed from the hook at the shop window.

“Those – those are handloom saris?”

“Yes.”

“Price?”

“The lowest priced one costs twelve rupees and four annas.”

“Can’t you give for less than that?”

Chhaganlal lost his cool. “Go, leave now, go home right now… This isn’t a vegetable mandi, just go.”

Teenkori couldn’t buy a sari.

*

He walked some way, then sat down under a semul tree. The sun was strong. His temper was mounting too. Sitting there, under the semul tree, he tore up the permit into tiny pieces. In the depth of sorrow he felt like laughing. It wouldn’t be wrong on his part to laugh aloud – all the others who were passing that way were probably laughing at him! The difference was that Teenkori’s laughter was a distorted version of crying.

The village priest Mahesh Bhattacharjji was coming his way. He proudly displayed the twisted, unwashed sacred thread around his neck, his pigtail too was bobbing happily to declare his unadulterated Brahminhood. But he was clad in a lungi. Quite an example of how dearth helps people break tradition and adapt to new ways!

“Bhatt’charjji Sir, regards – pranam!” Teenkori strode up to him.

“May you prosper son! What news Teenu, all well?”

“How can things be well Sir?? But what’s this – Bhatt’charjji Mashai in a lungi!”

Bhattacharjji shook his head and smiled, a wan smile born of pain. His voice shook with emotion. He wanted to drape his wife’s sari but she warned him, “This is dearer than gold and gems now, it’s not for you to even touch.” Naturally he had to resort to this way of preserving his dignity – “can’t go out without a stitch on you, can you? And is this inexpensive? I had to kowtow to Manik Miya, go on pleading ‘Big Brother – you’re like my father!’ Only then I got it for four and half rupees. But I am not ashamed Teenu – the God who makes a lame climb mountains and a mute speak reams, is the same almighty who’s making a Brahmin dress like a Mullah!”

“Why, don’t you get offerings of sari and dhoti when you conduct pujas?”

“Ashes! Bananas!” Mahesh Bhattacharjji waved his right thumb in the air. “How many people organise pujas at that scale where you offer saris and dhotis? And even if they do, they just pay eight annas or a rupee saying, ‘Please buy yourself a cloth Sir!’”

Teenkori, though in deep anguish, couldn’t help but laugh.

They kept walking side by side. One of the village elders, Kalimuddin Sarkar was coming their way with something wrapped in a gamchha held under his armpit.

“How d’you do Morol {headman}? Where are you coming from?” Bhattacharjji hailed him.

“From the bazaar,” Kalimuddin grinned.

“You are laughing because I am in a lungi, aren’t you? Well, go on, laugh. But what’s that in your armpit, eh? So carefully you are clutching it – what’s it?” Bhattacharjji narrowed his sharp eyes.

Kalimuddin hesitated a bit before replying, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No dear, no –“

“Just bought a pair of dhoti from the Marwari.”

“Let’s see – let’s see –“ Bhattacharjji and Teenkori both said at once.

A pair of ordinary mill-produced dhotis.

“Did you get a permit?” Bhattacharjji enquired.

Hunh!” – Kalimuddin pulled a face. “The permit is still in my pocket. This I bought in the black market. That too because he is known to me. These days you don’t get these even if you have the money.”

“How much did he charge?”

“Fifteen for the pair. He’d asked for twenty rupees.”

“Bastard! Thief!!” Bhattacharjji’s face went pale.

“And d’you know the price of saris? The mill-made ones are for 25, 30… the handloom ones are no less…”

Teenkori let out a sigh. If one had the money to pay for it, one could buy everything even when the situation was to the contrary. One who did not save money had to go without food and clothing – this is what Lord Almighty had ordained. At least in today’s world!

He would organise some money.

But money wasn’t for the asking!

The moneylender Ramkanta shook his head. “Ten rupees you want – but what else do you have to mortgage? Have you kept track of the balance still due to me? When will you clear that?”

“I remember – five rupees six annas. Apart from the interest.”

Teenkori went to many other people. Everyone shook his head just like Ramkanta. “No.”

Experiences and realisations build up the philosophy of our lives. Hence Teenkori had no hope, only hopelessness; no happiness, only unhappiness. Hence his life view was tragic, wrapped in a cover of ink-smeared darkness.

Manish turned grave on hearing the full account. He kept silent for quite a while, then said, “This is why we will take out the procession tomorrow. Be patient for some more days brother – there has to be some resolution.”

Teenkori spent the rest of the day going hither and thither. The whole day was wasted. There was work to be done in the fields – all had been undone. The next day also he would not be able to attend to the work, he had to join the procession. The nationalists were right: neither Teenkori by himself nor others like him – alone they could gain nothing. The strength of the poor and the deprived lies in their union, their coming together.

The procession would not draw immediate result; joining a party or raising slogans would not get Teenkori a sari for his wife. Still, would it all be wasted effort? Everyone would hear, everyone would know that nudity was forcing them to shed tears day and night.

*

Teenkori felt small going home. After darkness, he returned like a thief, stealthily. He felt relieved. Nandalal and his page had left in the evening.

Harimati entered the room after a while. Teenkori did not have the will to lift his head. Harimati fixed him with her gaze, then laughed a satirical smile and said, “Didn’t get it, did you? If you simply can’t, then this rag will have to be carefully donned – for a year, what d’you say?”

Slowly she walked out of the room.

Teenkori’s humiliation and remorse went up manifold at night. Harimati shut the door to their room, turned down the lamp and said, “Turn your face the other way.”

“Why?”

“There’s a reason…”

In the darkness she peeled off the torn yardage clinging to her body. With great care she folded it up and carefully she hung it on the clothes rack. She covered herself with the discarded gamchha of her father-in-law and came to bed.

The moment his hand touched Harimati he exclaimed, “What’s this?”

In a grave voice Harimati replied, “Can’t you imagine what will happen to the rag if I sleep in it?

Teenkori started sweating in the depth of the night.

*

At daybreak Teenkori showed up in the school playground. That’s where everyone was to assemble.

Manish was already there, and another 150 villagers. A few elderly women and a handful of girls too were in the crowd. People from the lowly communities of Bagdi, Jele (fisherfolk), Tili, poor peasants from both Hindu and Muslim communities were present. The dearth of clothes and of food did not differentiate on religious grounds.

Before setting out Manish and another young man gave them placards – slogans mounted on bamboo sticks. In English and Bengali, they said more or less the same thing: ‘We want clothes’ ‘Down with hoarders!’ ‘End the Shame of Nudity’ ‘Down with Black Market’ ‘Perish, Profiteers!’

Minutes later they started the march.

Intermittently they bellowed – “We want Saris! We want Dhotis!”

One voice shouted out: “Hoarders!” All others refrained: “Perish! Perish!”

“Down With…”

“Hoarders! Profiteers!”

While crossing the market Teenkori looked at Chhaganlal’s shop. It had yet to open, but along with others who sought to be entertained, Chhaganlal too was crowding the balcony. A sly smile of disdain hung from the corner of his lips. The bright beams of the baby sun shone brightly on the gold chain around his neck, casting an aura around him.

As they kept progressing, four or five other groups from two-three surrounding villages joined them. Their numbers now totalled at five hundred. It took about an hour to reach the city. It was almost eight by then.

Manish with all his men arrived at the bungalow of the District Magistrate. A policeman had joined forces with the watchman at the gate.

“Raise your voices brothers!” Manish urged. Before anyone else could respond Teenkori screamed, “We want cloth!” Everyone else joined in, “We want Cloth! We want Cloth!”

“Profiteers must perish!”

“Stop the black market!”

“Magistrate Sahib, give us justice!”

“We want clothing! Give us cloth!”

The policeman and the durwan barked something in unison. But, just as a river’s song would drown in the roar of the ocean, so too was their command drowned by the “We want clothing!” demand of the crowd.

At that moment District Magistrate Carter was discussing international politics with his wife and daughter. The slogans reached him like the sound of waves breaking on a distant shore.

“What’s that dear? Let me check,” Mrs Carter said.

“The same old story of naked men – they want clothing,” Carter replied.

Mrs Carter parted the green raw silk curtains and peeped outside. Their daughter Joanna came and stood behind her. Beyond the green lawn fenced by rose bushes, beyond the iron gate, a crowd of uncouth, underclad men were clamouring loudly. What were they crying out for? Mrs Carter and her daughter could not comprehend. But the numbers and the loud expression of their want filled them with panic.

“How pitiable!” Mother and daughter both agreed.

Durwan Ram Singh came in and saluted them.

“What is it Ram Singh?” Carter enquired.

“They’re asking for clothes Huzoor!”

“Why here?” Mrs Carter flared up. “Is this a shop for clothes?”

“Father is not a Marwari cloth merchant!” Joanna commented. “Ask them to go to the shop.”

Carter stood up. “Let’s go,” he said, lighting up his pipe.

Mrs Carter stopped him. Her blue blue eyes gleamed from fright. The August of 1942 was still fresh in her mind. “Carry your pistol darling,” she pleaded.

“Yes daddy,” Joanna echoed her, “do take that.”

“Nonsense!” Carter laughed. “People who don’t lift  a finger even when they die of hunger, surely will not kill me for clothings!” He went off laughing.

Mrs Carter wasn’t pleased. These days you can’t trust Indians any more – the’ll go to any limit. What ought she to do? The sound of slogans was gradually rising outside.

“Mom – Mamma!”

“Yes?”

“Call the police please!”

“Right dear. I was also thinking of doing that.”

The sound of the phone being picked up filled the room.

Mr Carter stoutly stood at the gate. His pipe was ceaselessly blowing out the strong smell of tobacco while his other hand was twisting a white kerchief. On either side, stood a policeman and his personal guard, Ram Singh.

The assembly burst out like thunder, “Give us clothings!”

Chup raho, silence!” Mr Carter roared at them. “Tell me peacefully what you want.”

“Clothings – that’s all we want,” they bellowed again. “Just organise that…”

“What?” Carter scanned the faces. “Aye you – come here, HERE…”

Teenkori was at the forefront, he was shouting his lungs out. Carter summoned him. With a high jump Teenkori tried to lose himself among the crowd at the back. Gora Sahib! Englishman!! Magistrate!!! Oh God!

Manish strode forward in his place. Carter scanned him from head to toe and asked, “Are you the leader?”

“I am not a leader, but I will tell you what they are here to tell you.”

“Then say – tell me.” Carter put the pipe back in his mouth.

No good came out of the effort. Meaningless assurance was all Carter could give them – they had to go back with the vague assurance that something would be done. But when? What? No word on that.

Teenkori wasn’t pleased. Walking the distance, shouting at the top of his voice – what result did that yield? They ambled through the city’s thoroughfares for another hour and then dispersed. It was almost 10 by this time.

Teenkori thought to himself, “I should try the city shops, may be I’ll get something within my means.”

But that wasn’t to be either. The black market crafted by profiteers and cheats had created a stock that was not available to anyone who did not have a certificate stating “My Candidate”. And what was available to those privileged was beyond his pocket.

Teenkori returned home empty handed.

*

Pooti was down with fever in the evening. Malaria. She was lying in a delirium, wrapped in a torn quilt.

After lunch, Teenkori went off to the fields with his bullocks. The sight of them brought tears to his eyes – both shrivelled, their ribs showing through their hide, they were unlikely to survive too long. What will be their fate then? Perhaps the Master of their Destiny too has no idea.

Harimati was in a jam. The dishes needed to be washed, there was no water at home, and Pooti was in the clutches of fever. No option but for her to go out.

But draping a piece of cloth doesn’t cover everything. The bulge of the breasts stands out, and the abdomen? That too remains visible.

Of course the pond wasn’t too far. Harimati didn’t go to the one frequented by most of her neighbours. Shame! She chose the one less frequented so that she could be away from human gaze. It had rained plenty in October, the ponds were still overflowing. She only had to reach out.

She’d almost finished washing when someone wolf-whistled right behind her. Startled, Harimati turned around. The good-for-nothing village loafer Avinash was oggling the exposed parts of her body with wolfish eyes.

Harimati tugged at one end of her sari to cover herself but the old wornout fabric gave way.

Ahaha!” Avinash cackled, “you just tore your sari out of shame!”

“I’ll beat you lame, you monkey! Let Pooti’s brother come home from the fields…” Harimati retaliated.

Avinash cackled some more. “Damn all he can do. Why? What wrong have I done? I’ve not embraced you, not said anything indecent to you. I’m only gazing. God has given me eyes, and you have given things to gape at – so I’m looking. What’s wrong?”

Harimati swiftly gathered the vessels, filled up the bucket and took to her way.

Avinash called after her, “You need a sari, and I can get you one. Will you take it? Hear me!”

Harimati broke into a run, “God! Oh God!” she kept repeating.

The entity thus addressed did not reply.

Harimati started howling.

*

Teenkori’s veins were about to burst. “Quiet!” he said, not a word more! Just be quiet.”

Harimati’s wailing gave way to yelling. “Quiet?! What d’you mean, ‘Quiet’? I won’t shut up until you get me a sari.”

“How can I get one? Steal?”

“Do that.”

”All right, that’s what I’ll do.”

Teenkori stomped out of his house. It wasn’t too late at night, in fact they had not had their dinner yet. Only old man Ekkori had finished his dinner and gone to bed after dusk.

He actually went off?!

Harimati wiped off her tears, then went and stood outside. “Where are you?” she called out. “Where have you gone? I beg of you, come back and have your dinner.”

*

Teenkori did not ever come back to dinner.

In the middle of the night he was caught trying to steal a sari in Chhaganlal’s house.

Chhaganlal raised a huge hue and cry and gathered a large crowd. What a lynching Teenkori got! Slaps and kicks and boxing – it left him almost lifeless. The villagers who had gathered felt ashamed and sheepishly went back to their homes. In their heart they could not support Chhaganlal but openly they couldn’t let off Teenkori. All said and done, he had turned into a thief!

At daybreak Chhaganlal’s men took Teenkori all tied up to the police station. In that state he was left in their custody. His misery and despair had dried up his tears. His dejection and gloom made him only want to tear his hair.

*

The news reached Manish around 9 in the morning. “The docile, peaceable Teenkori could not keep a hold of himself!”

A few of the villagers pleaded with him to do something in the matter. Manish felt sorry for Teenkori. He felt it was his duty to do something, he hurried out.

When a man keeps asking for something basic and does not get it, what else can he do? Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him otherwise — today, how can he forget all that and accept nudity as normal? And, in terms of law too, how has Teenkori ‘erred’? How can age-old norms hold sway over changed circumstances and dire needs?

Manish went directly to Chhaganlal. He heard him out but refused to acquiesce. “That is not to be Manish Babu. He’s a thief, he ought to be jailed.”

Manish stood up, his eyes raining fire. “Don’t try to give a lesson in right and wrong. For the last time I’m pleading, with folded hands Chhaganlalji. Poor man, the lynching he has suffered has been punishment enough, please don’t send him to jail. If you destroy a family it will not bide well for you. Besides, I can prove that you are responsible for all this.”

Chhaganlal heard Manish speak and pondered over it. He has also been following the political trend, perhaps from afar, out of sheer curiosity, but yes, he has been following the trend. All of a sudden he felt that if the circle of time brings changes in history, when the present rule is over, perhaps he would find himself standing before these very people with folded hands. On that future date, it would not help to have these men as his opponents.

Chhaganlal also stood up. “Okay Manish Babu, I will do as you say, and let go of him. Come.”

Together the two went to the police station.

Not there. Half an hour before they got there, Teenkori had been transferred to the court.

Manish implored and took Chhaganlal with him to the court.

*

On hearing the news old man Ekkori had beseeched his neighbour Tarini and gone to the thana. The infirm, near-blind man had leaned on his walking stick and walked behind Tarini all the way to the police station and faced the policeman. He even met Teenkori. The son did not utter a word, only shed silent tears.

The station officer said, “How can I let him go, tell me? There’s a case filed against him. You better go to Chhaganlal.”

Oldman walked to Chhaganlal’s shop. Chhaganlal had just gone out.

Old man went back home, flopped on the floor and wailed, “I couldn’t, dear girl, I couldn’t bring him home!”

Harimati sat still like a corpse.

Ailing Pooti called out to her from inside, “Boudi I am starving. Give me a handful of puffed rice.”

Harimati made no reply. She went to the kitchen and tried to light a fire. She couldn’t, she just gave up. No fumes rising from the clay oven but her eyes were hurting, flooding with tears.

Harimati could almost see with her eyes that Teenkori had been sentenced to a long imprisonment. In the family that was already in dire straits, there was no one to bring home anything by way of livelihood. An emaciated father-in-law, a baby sister-in-law,  she herself with no capability. She had no mother or father, no brother, no one to fall back on. She had only her husband, now he was gone. Even if she mortgaged all she could, it would not sustain them for long. The nudity would have to come into the open. The hyena eyes would feast on her, the indecent proposals would go up manifold. One man’s adversity emboldens the beast in other men: this is an eternal truth as the history of mankind shows. Many will offer her a bellyful of meal and a cloth to wrap her body in but in lieu she’ll have to lose her all — dignity, home, fidelity.

What good would be such a life?

*

Manish returned at sundown with Teenkori. Yes, he had succeeded in freeing him.

As soon as they drew near Teenkori’s house, they could hear wailing and commotion.

“What’s happening?” Manish wondered. Teenkori couldn’t guess anything, “I know nothing.”

“Maybe they’re lamenting for you.”

“Possible.”

The minute they stepped into the courtyard, they could see Harimati’s semi clad body lying on the floor. Her dead eyes were wide open. She was surrounded by two-three elderly women, some men and a few children. Pooti and Ekkori were on the veranda.

Tarini was also present. He spoke, “She hung herself in the backyard of the Mukharjees. I found her an hour ago, on my way back with the cattle from the fields. Madhu has been dispatched to inform the police.”

Manish was speechless.

Teenkori was swaying.

Blind King Dhritarashtra had cried for a hundred sons – Ekkori was crying more than him for his only daughter-in-law. His weather-beaten face was swamped in tears.

Manish was immersed in thought. Are men and women governed by colonial rulers any better than dogs and wolves? So weak, so helpless, so pitiably helpless! Such tragedy befell them for the want of a piece of rag?! He turned his face away. The wailing, the howling, the half-naked body of Harimati – they were all taunting him, ridiculing his leadership, mocking his manhood.

A savage look had set in Teenkori’s eyes, the sort that descends in the eyes of soldiers when they confront their enemies. Many countless invisible enemies seemed to have aligned against him. His muscles swelled up. A desire to tear those enemies tingled at the tip of his fingers…

No, Teenkori would not cry.

Glossary

Anna — Currency. 1/16 of a rupee.

Gamchha — Coarse cotton cloth used like a towel.

Bou — Wife

Puja — Durga Puja

Boudi — Elder sister-in-law

Mandi — Market

Durwan — Security guard

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

For the want of a cloth…

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Roti Kapda aur Makaan/ Maang raha hai Hindustan…

India is demanding food, clothing and shelter…

Sometime in 1949 writer-director-actor Manoj Kumar had heard a young man recite these lines in post-Partition Punjab. The simple line had stayed on in his mind and almost two decades later he came up with the film Roti Kapda aur Makaan (food, clothes and housing). By then India had its third prime minister Indira Gandhi who had swept into the office in 1967 winning with a huge popular mandate on the wings of the slogan Garibi Hatao (Do away with poverty). The three tenets of identifying poverty then outlined were – yes, lack of food, clothing, and roof over people’s head.

These, needless to add, were the prime concern of millions who had been uprooted, disowned by the nation they so far knew to be their own, driven out of their ancestral homes with barely a change of clothes, spending days and nights in refugee camp queues for one square meal and perhaps the vaguest hope of some employment.

In 1949 the Constituent Assembly was already meeting but had yet to formally adopt the Bharatiya Samvidhan – the Constitution of India that came into effect on 26th January 1950, the day that is gloriously celebrated every year with a gratifying display of our military might and cultural wealth on the Rajpath of the Capital. Full seven decades ago the Constitution  laid down a framework that delineates the fundamental code, the directive principles that would govern the political structure, powers, and duties of the government and its institutions – as much as it set out the fundamental rights and the duties of citizens.

We were perhaps receiving our first lessons in civics when Indira Gandhi stepped into the prime minister’s office. We learnt by rote the Preamble that asserts the solemn resolution of the People of India to Constitute the land into a Sovereign Democratic Republic that would secure every one of its citizens Justice – social, economic and political; Liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality – of status and opportunity; and Fraternity which would assure the dignity of individual and unity of the nation.

We were not, however, aware at that age that the two years before India gave itself the Samvidhan, nations of the world had united in declaring that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. By the end of the barbaric World War II they had realised that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in the nightmarish acts that continue to outrage the conscience of mankind. By this time, universally, nations were keen to forge a world wherein humans would enjoy “freedom of speech and belief, freedom from fear and want.” These, it was proclaimed by one and all, were “the highest aspiration of the common man,” anywhere on the globe.

By the time the British left India to its destiny, the imperial power too had realised that, if man were not compelled to recourse to the last resort – rebellion against tyranny and oppression – then human rights ought to be protected by the rule of law.

So, in the Charter, the peoples of the United Nations reaffirmed their “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.” The Human Rights Declaration was, then, meant “to promote social progress and better standards of life for larger freedom.”

By proclaiming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” member States of the United Nations had pledged the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights as fundamental to every freedom. Keeping the Declaration constantly in mind, they will “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

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When I read this, I am astounded that Nabendu Ghosh, writing five years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was almost setting the charter for nations to follow once they lose the harness of imperialism and emerge out of the shadow of colonialism. “When, despite repeated pleas, a man is deprived of his basic needs, what else can he do?” – wonders the leader portrayed in the mould of a Gandhi in Bastrang Dehi (Give Me a Rag, Please). “Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him to cover his natural anatomy, today how can he forget that nudity is primitive and accept nudity as normal? How can age-old norms hold sway over dire needs?” the writer poses.

In the swiftly developing crisis that engulfs the entire community which is suffering the aftermath of rationing and subsequent profiteering in clothes, the village Brahmin Bhattachajji is not apologetic for wearing a lungi, the mark of a mullah: bhaagte bhoot ki langot bhali! – one could add the Hindi proverb to imply, when one is running to save one’s skin, even a loincloth is most acceptable (something is better than nothing). Profiteering, we realise before the end draws up, is the worst of crime against mankind, for it fishes in troubled waters.

The writer ends by describing two opposite reactions – one, of a leader; the other, of a common man. Nationalist Manish turns his face away from the howling surrounding the half-naked corpse of Harimati: the sight and sound was ridiculing his leadership, taunting the failure of his processions to procure more than false promises, mocking his manhood, he felt. But Teenkori, Harimati’s husband, does not cry. He is lynched, he is jailed, he becomes a thief in his attempt to procure a sari for his abused wife who eventually commits suicide – but no, he does not shed a drop of tear. He becomes vicious, a savage look descends in his eyes, his fingers tingle just as do soldiers’ when they confront enemies.

To me, representing a generation which has, since it started walking, celebrated Republic Day by singing paeans to the Hindustan better than the rest of the world, Bastrang Dehi brought home truths that no history book has ever taught. Yes, I knew about the Bengal Famine of 1943 that saw millions starved for the want of rice dying on the streets of Calcutta – the erstwhile capital of the jewel in the British crown. Yes, they were uprooted; they were compelled to leave their homes and hearth in the villages and flock to the city in search of a meal. Yes, I knew that they died of cholera and dysentery as they snatched food out of bins from the jaws of snarling dogs too. But did I know that clothes too were rationed, and sold in the black market, sending saris and dhotis beyond the reach of peasants? Once the ‘Quit India!’ slogan rang out, most Indians would not touch the clothes from the English mills while the British were sending everything — food and handloom clothings produced in the Province — to the Theatre of the War in the North East, where American GIs were joining British Tommies to beat back the Japs who were regularly bombing Bengal.

Nabendu Ghosh, a devotee of the Buddha, must have read this gospel. A disciple of the Enlightened One complained that one of his flock was indifferent to his sermons. He was sorely disappointed that Tathagata’s teachings were falling on deaf ears. One day the Buddha accompanied the disciple to the hut from where he had been shooed away. The Buddha offered the man a bowl of rice, then turned to his disciple and calmly said, “Could you see the man was starving? Truth can be served to him only in a bowl of rice.”

Ghosh derived the title of Bastrang Dehi from the popular invocation of Goddess Durga that rings through Bengal year after year after year, at the advent of the Autumnal Festival: Rupang Dehi, Jayang Dehi, Yasho Dehi Disho Jayee! ( grant me Beauty, grant me Victory, grant me Fame!) By adapting the prayer to seek something as mundane as a piece of cloth, the writer underscores that food, clothing and shelter may be basic individual needs, but if humans constitute society these must be enshrined as basic rights even before we enshrine political liberty, rule of law, equality of worship, freedom of expression… Else democracy and justice and other lofty ideals of human life will go for a toss.

Decades after the history books have changed the way we look at the past, why do I still cringe when I read Bastrang Dehi? Because I know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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I am certain Anshu Gupta has never read Bastrang Dehi. But ‘Give me cloth’ was the plea that had launched his journey with Goonj – and it has earned him the Magsaysay Award, World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, Mother Teresa award, NASA’S Game Changing Innovation, the prestigious Ashoka fellowship… they are still coming in.

What had spurred the young man and his wife to start Goonj with merely 67 items of clothings? The realisation that clothing was overlooked as a basic human right. Today the NGO registered under Societies Act and for exemption under several sections and for foreign contributions etc, deals with more than 3500 tonnes of material every year. 

A real life incidence had prompted Gupta to start this arduous journey. One night, going home in Delhi’s winter, he met a three-wheeler scooter rickshaw driver, Habib. His rickshaw had this inscribed on its side: Laawarish laash uthaane wala (I pick up unclaimed dead bodies). Talking to him Gupta learnt that for every dead body Habib carried to the crematorium, he got twenty rupees and two metres of cloth. That, workload in winter was more than in summer. That, many underprivileged families don’t have enough clothes to stave off the cold. So much so that Habib’s little daughter Bano told Anshu, “When I feel cold, I hug a dead body to sleep. It does not turn around, it does not trouble me…”

Anshu Gupta deserves every single award that has come his way. For, unlike nationalist Manish of Bastrang Dehi, he did not turn his face away. That one meeting ignited in him the impulse to address the sufferings of millions due to shortage of clothing. He started collecting under-utilised used material, to maintain human dignity rather than to give them as charity. In the process he has triggered development with dignity across the land.

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Saare jahaan se achha... I still sing on Republic Day, and I still sing Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi Independence Day. But when I run into Anshu Gupta at a conference perhaps in Budapest, I hang my head in shame. I am elated that Goonj has clothed millions. But even today, if a Tsunami, an Amphan or a Yaas sweeps the shores of Midnapur or Sundarbans, a Kendrapada or Bhadrak, in Bengal or Odisha – even today, I hear the cries of women and men cry out, ‘Give me a rag, please!”

It is a cry to save their dignity.

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Glossary:

Saare jahaan se achha… A song written by Iqbal in 1904 and adapted as a song for marching by the Indian army. Literally, translated to mean, the best in the world.

Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi A song written by  Dwijendralal Ray (1863-1913). Literally translated to mean, the best country is my land of birth.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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